MLB playoffs: After a season of late-inning misery, Nationals bullpen comes up huge against Dodgers

The Washington Nationals are going to the NLCS. Years of NLDS heartbreak were washed away in Game 5 on Tuesday night thanks to Clayton Kershaw's latest postseason meltdown and Howie Kendrick's 10th inning grand slam (WAS 7, LAD 3).

Here is Kendrick's clutch grand slam:

Kendrick was having a rough NLDS up to that point. He went 4 for 15 (.267) in Games 1-4 and made a brutal baserunning mistake in Game 3, and also banged into a rally-killing double play in the sixth inning of Game 5. The grand slam made up for all that.

Game 5 will be remembered for Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto taking Kershaw deep on back-to-back pitches and Kendrick's grand slam, and understandably so. For the Nationals though, the win starts with their pitching, especially following Stephen Strasburg's shaky start. He allowed three runs on five hits (two homers) and one walk in the first two innings.

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Stephen Strasburg WAS • SP • 37
NLDS Game 5 vs. Dodgers
IP6
H6
R3
ER3
BB1
K7
HR2

Strasburg's location was pretty crummy early in Game 5. He was either leaving pitches out over the plate or missing well out of the zone for easy takes. It wasn't until the third inning that he got locked in. After surrendering Enrique Hernandez's second inning solo homer, Strasburg retired 15 of the final 18 batters he faced, and one of the three baserunners reached on an error.

"He was phenomenal and he did settle down," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said following Game 5. "And after that first inning I saw a guy that just said, you know what, I'm just going to go out there and control the game, and did he that. He threw up four zeros for us and kept us in the game and that's what we needed."  

Following the slow start Strasburg settled down and was able to complete six innings, then turn the game over to the bullpen. During the regular season, that was bad news. The Nationals bullpen had a 5.68 ERA in 2019, better than only the 108-loss Orioles (5.79 ERA), and the relief crew going into October hardly inspired confidence despite a trade deadline makeover.

In Game 5 though, four relievers combined to hold the Dodgers to two baserunners in four scoreless innings. Among those four relievers was Game 1 starter Patrick Corbin, who struck out three of the five batters he faced to bounce back from a dreadful relief appearance in Game 3 (six runs and two outs).

PITCHERSIPHRBBKHB

RHP Tanner Rainey

2/3

0

0

0

0

0

LHP Patrick Corbin

1 1/3

0

0

0

3

1

RHP Daniel Hudson

1

1

0

0

1

0

LHP Sean Doolittle

1

0

0

0

1

0

Total

4

1

0

0

5

1

After a summer of bullpen misery, Washington's relievers shut down the highest scoring team in the National League in the biggest game of the year. Rainey was a midseason call-up who walked 38 batters in 48 1/3 innings. Hudson was acquired at the deadline. Doolittle was heavily overworked. Corbin's a starter. That makeshift foursome got the 12 biggest outs of the Nationals season.

"Our bullpen came in today, after putting Corbin in, after he struggled coming in, in relief last time he came out and shut them down, Rainey coming in and getting two big outs for us," Martinez said. "And then Huddie and Doo have been unbelievable for us down the stretch, and they come in and shut what I believe is one of the best hitting teams in the game over there. Those guys can hit. They hit all year long and they did a great job."

The Nationals held the Dodgers to two hits and a hit batsman following the second inning in Game 5. Four baserunners (one on an error) and 11 strikeouts in eight innings. Strasburg settling down gave the offense time to get back in the game and also limited the bullpen's exposure. And, once the bullpen was pressed into duty, the relief crew delivered in a huge way.

Washington's bullpen remains a question going forward. After all, there's a reason they had to use Corbin in relief twice and Max Scherzer once in the NLDS. Martinez doesn't trust his late-inning relievers. No matter what happens going forward, the bullpen that was the source of so much headache during the regular season shined in Game 5, and helped the Nationals inflict NLDS heartbreak on someone else for once.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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